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Guitar player, entertainer and inventor… Those three things only hint at the breadth of Les Paul’s genius. As guitarists we are all conscious of the instrument that bears his name, and that his (and Leo Fender’s) development of the solidbody guitar has shaped the way that music has been made since the mid twentieth century. Many are aware of his other inventions, including tape echo and overdubbing, not to mention an early form of live looping. Fewer know that after a serious car accident that shattered his right arm and elbow, Paul had his arm set permanently in a position that would allow him to continue to play the guitar. Fewer still know that in the forties he ran one of the first pirate radio stations, out of an apartment basement in Brooklyn, broadcasting live shows by Glen Miller, the Dorseys, and Benny Goodman. And the list goes on…
Born Lester Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he was encouraged by his mother to entertain and by his auto mechanic father to tinker. A music teacher told his mother not to waste her money on lessons because he wasn't "musically inclined," but by age 13, as Red Hot Red, the Wizard of Waukesha, Lester was a local star. Soon after, he was performing hillbilly music as Rhubarb Red and Django Reinhardt-influenced jazz as Les Paul. His trio and Jazz at the Philharmonic series records are required listening for anyone wishing to hear how he influenced rock guitar, from rockabilly to Jeff Beck; his rapid-fire tremolo picking, pull-offs, and open string work have become an integral part of the electric guitar lexicon.
Ever the tinkerer, Paul created his first electric guitar by jabbing a phonograph needle into his acoustic and wiring it to his mother's radio. He built his own microphone, using the mouthpiece part of a telephone and his father's radio. His first recording machine was constructed from the flywheel from a Cadillac and a belt from a dentist's drill.
Backing Bing Crosby in the forties, Paul had his first million-seller, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” He acquired an Ampex tape recorder from Crosby in 1949, adding a fourth head to the machine to enable sound-on-sound recording. Using this overdubbing technique, as well as some of his other innovations—tape delay and close micing vocals—he recorded the masterpiece “How High the Moon.” Performed as a duo with future wife Mary Ford, it was the first of what was to be a string of hits for Capitol Records and it changed the face of studio production.
Dissatisfied with the thin tone, lack of sustain, and feedback problems inherent in commercial big box electric guitars, Paul sought a new concept. “I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he has said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.” In 1941, Paul used Epiphone’s plant machinery to realize this vision, dubbing the resulting guitar “The Log.” In the early 1950s, Gibson Guitar helped him refine this idea into the guitar of his dreams. Beginning with the 1952 release of the Les Paul Goldtop, Gibson and Paul began a line of instruments that would become objects of desire for generations of guitarists.
Les Paul and Mary Ford’s music waned in popularity as the fifties turned into the sixties, but their television show kept them and Paul’s unique guitar style in the public eye during those years. Divorced in 1964, the guitarist virtually disappeared from view for over a decade before resurfacing with a splash to record a brilliant a Grammy-winning collaboration with Chet Atkins, Chester and Lester. After an equally must-have follow-up, illness sidelined Paul for another decade, until he popped up in the eighties at a now defunct Manhattan club, Fat Tuesday’s, for a series of Monday night gigs.
I caught my first taste of Les Paul there, when he was already in his seventies. If age and health issues had affected his technique I couldn’t tell. I sat there with my mouth open as he performed jaw-dropping licks on his Les Paul Studio guitar. I was prepared for the instrumental prowess of Les Paul the guitarist, but I was not ready for the gut-busting humor of Les Paul the entertainer. His asides to Chet on their duet records may have hinted at his wry wit, but here his discussion of the bass player’s sex-life while the poor man was trying to take a solo was tear-inducing.
These Monday night gigs continued through my 12 years away in San Francisco, through the move to the Iridium club near Lincoln Center, and the move of that club further uptown. As soon as I returned to New York I made it a point to check out a Les Paul Monday night. In the intervening decade, arthritis had slowed the maestro down. Still, until the end, when much of the music was turned over to band members like guitarist Frank Vignola, or guests sitting in, like Tommy Emmanuel and Bucky Pizzarelli, every note the man played was unmistakably Les Paul.
I will always remember his birthday party gig a couple of years ago (in truth, every Les Paul gig was a party). Throughout the evening he added cool single note counterpoint to the solos of others, demonstrating that it doesn’t take a lot of fast notes to add musical interest. Still evolving at 92, he used a tremolo pedal to color these lines—something I hadn’t heard him do before. Neither had I heard his latest, funky version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” with the nonagenarian guitarist laying down some sweet, Jimmy Nolan ninth chords.
The set over, the cake delivered, the candles blown out, "Happy Birthday" sung, the living legend left the stage to relax before the second set. He required no help, no cane, his energy level that of someone a third his age. Once again the Wizard of Waukesha had shown us all that Les is more. Monday nights in New York will never be the same.